I work in the Melbourne suburb of Footscray, or Foot Scary as some Melburnians call it. It’s generally poorer with a large immigrant population, mainly made up of Asians and Vietnamese in particular. Footscray is also the location for the Australian film Romper Stomper starring Russell Crowe in which Crowe plays a neo-Nazi skinhead who leads a gang beating up and killing Asian people.
The 1992 film was in the context of Australians fearing an ‘Asian invasion’ as numbers of people born in Asia living in Australia rose from 276,000 to over 1 million between 1981 and 2000. The increasing numbers of Asians living in Australia is still a theme in society today, as you will hear talk of wealthy Asians buying all of the houses and school places being taken up by Asian children. Public schools actually accept children not living in Australia for a fee (can be $8k p/a), and many Asians are paying that fee for their children.
Before going to Darwin and the Northern Territory, a couple of people described it to me as somewhere uniquely Australian and the last frontier outback. However, one thing that struck me there was the prominence of Asians. There was a statue of Harry Chan, a Darwin mayor of the 1960s and photos of their current mayor, Katrina Fong Lim, in the newspapers. Then there was the tourist sign giving history of the gold rush era which advised that in the 1850s, there were 8 times as many Asians living in Darwin than European settlers.
The migration of Asians into Australia is not new, having started with the gold rush, and by 1901, Chinese people were the third largest migrant group after Britons and Germans. The migration of Asians was halted when the independent states federated to become Australia in 1901, and enacted policies known collectively as ‘the White Australia policy’. The leaders had decided that Australia was European, if not British, and wanted it to remain that way.
Surprisingly, it was circumstances surrounding Britain’s “finest hour” that prompted Australia to loosen ties with Britain and eventually its European heritage. The inability of the UK to defend Australia during World War 2, forces were prioritised elsewhere, caused Australian leaders to consider new ways of protecting themselves.
One method was to align with America and another was to rapidly grow the population through immigration. As well as promoting immigration to lots of Britons (the Ten Pound Poms) immediately after World War 2, they also pushed for other Europeans – Greeks, Italians, Maltese – to venture across the oceans. Australia was still ‘white’ but in the 1970s, the racist policies were changed and Asians, as well as other non-whites, began to arrive.
A few years ago, the USA government heavily publicised its “Asian pivot” reorienting its foreign policy resources and focus away from Europe and towards Asia. It was trying to offer a different answer to the question of where USA needed to be in the world. For most Australians, they would know that Australia was nearer Asia, but would identify as being closer to Europe.
This Saturday, Australia will even compete in the Eurovision song contest. Of course it is ludicrous, but it does reflect a reality of where many Australians see their cultural connections to be. Part of what is driving the current angst regarding Asian invasion is actually Asian influence, and particularly the influence that China may have. The mining boom that is making such a difference to Australia’s economy is linked to the demand from China for those materials. This makes Australians feel vulnerable to, and maybe even dependent on, Chinese politicians and businessmen.
The rise in importance of Asian economies is causing Australians to consider their own ‘Asian pivot’ of sorts, illustrated by the willingness of the Australian government to ignore USA requests and join the Chinese led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). This could be a sign of Australia realising it must have relations with Asian neighbours, and cannot sacrifice these for old allies. The USA fears the AIIB could be a vehicle for expanding Chinese influence, reducing the influence of the Asian Development Bank, based in the US aligned Philippines.
Interestingly though, despite the power of the Chinese economy and demand for Australian minerals, it was only the 6th biggest investor in Australia in 2013, totalling 1/7 of the total investment from the USA. Japan and Singapore are actually larger investors than China, adding to the total from Asian countries, but the UK and USA between them still account for half of all foreign investment in Australia.
Small changes can be more noticeable than large constants, so the addition of new Asian faces can attract attention when the large, existing British or European population remains predominant culturally. Britons are still second for new immigrants arriving and in terms of Australians going abroad, destinations and the UK and USA account for 45% of all foreign travels.
Given that the UK is the second largest source of new immigrants, you may wonder if China is number 1. It’s not. Indeed, the country providing the most immigrants could be a country seen to be perpetuating the British heritage of modern Australia, given its membership of the Commonwealth – it is India.
The proximity of Asia combined with its European history could enable Australia to serve as a place where these two worlds come together. Fears could be unwound and similarities could be discovered. And it could start on Saturday with Australia in the Eurovision, which is surely just a dressed-up karaoke competition.